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Content May Be King, But Design Is The Messenger

Posted on October 18th, 2010 by Jeff

Content may be paramount, but without good design, it matters not.

Photo: http://feedingthepuppy.typepad.com/feeding_the_puppy/music/

It’s been stated, and re-stated, and then beaten to death, that content is king. And while I do agree that good content is key to helping to A) get good organic traffic, and B) turn new visitors into repeat visitors. A good website, nay, a decent website, isn’t just a brochure site anymore. It’s not enough to tell your visitors repeatedly how awesome you are and how great your stuff is and how no one compares to your X, Y, and Z. The average is user is getting more comfortable just tuning that non-sense out nowadays (to you it’s not non-sense, but to them most likely it is*). And this is why good content, updated regularly, is fundamental to a successful website today. But, just having good content is not enough anymore.

Hierarchy #Fail

Too often sites fail to address the needs of their users, and not just the people designing / building it. One of the most common mistakes I see is failing to address visual hierarchy. Hierarchy is a design principle that lets a user know what is the most important aspect of a page, all the way down to the least important. This sounds simple enough, and it’s actually not that difficult to do. Take a step back and think about what is the most important piece of the page you’re looking at. Theoretically it should be the page title, but often times it’s not. This is usually large, but there are usually many other competing elements on the page, images, navigation, ads, logos, you name it. Not only is this sort of the page layout necessary for good search engine optimization, but most importantly, it helps a user get through your content easily. Well done  visual hierarchy can make a long page of content be easy and somewhat fun to read. Of course, good hierarchy with poor content isn’t going to help either.

Poor Readability

Piggybacking on the visual hierarchy bit, having good content that’s mashed into small columns with poor styles can ruin a site’s effectiveness as well. I’m still flabbergasted by the number of sites I visit that fall into this trap. A few easy additions to your CSS (cascading style sheets) can easily help fix this problem. As more and more designers are beginning to realize, you almost cannot have too much white space. White space (or negative space) is nothing new in design, unfortunately it’s just sort of new to web design. When the web first came into it’s own, every web designer / developer tried to cram as much content into the top 400px or so of a page, and with good reason. Users were not accustomed to the web, and not accustomed to scrolling with their mouse to read. In 2010, users are much more akin to scrolling, if they are shown reason to, adding white space helps to do this. It also increases hierarchy, so it’s a double whammy.

Too often web designers over design sites, and one of the issues is using fonts that are too small to read for a vast majority of users. If your site has any decent amount of copy on it, it’s got to be at 13px or larger. Unless you know your users are under the age of 25, don’t make anyone squint to read your content just because it looks ‘designy’.

Another issue sites run into often is poor use of line-height, or in the print world leading. Line-height defines the space between lines of copy–setting this to too small for body copy is a no-no as it can make even a short paragraph feel a lot longer than it really is.

Ad Overload

Anytime you have trouble picking out the content from the advertisements on a site, it’s suffering from Ad Overload. I’m not suggesting that advertising is evil and should be done away with, it’s a great revenue stream, and it can provide great benefit to users, but it has to be done carefully. There are numerous (thousands even) of web design blogs that just exist to make money. Normally I wouldn’t have any issue with this, business is business, every knows that. But when you put your advertisements front and center rather than your content, I just think that’s showing a lack of respect for your users. A lot of sites segment their ads into a sidebar, and this is a pretty decent compromise. Often times when this layout is used, the main content still features a large ad at the top of it–this is something I still just can’t get behind. I’m sure it’s great for advertisers, but as a user, this really bugs me.

Design + Content = Perfect World

These suggestions / guidelines listed above are just part of what a site can do to help the content be more accessible. User testing and a hard focus on usability are also required for an optimal balance between content and a user-friendly skin, so to speak. What have I missed here?

*What businesses need to really understand is that [for the most part], people don’t give a hoot about your company, unless you give them tangible reasons to.

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